Sonalee Rashatwar will be a keynote speaker at Philly FatCon, the city’s first fat-focused convention, which will take place Oct. 27-29. The gathering includes two parties — a kick-off bash at a secret location to be announced on Discord and a costume party hosted by Fat Lady Brewing in Manayunk. The main events will occur at Temple University in the ADA-compliant student center on Saturday and Sunday, featuring panel discussions, movement classes, independent vendors and a clothing swap.
“I’ve never been to an event that is tailored to the celebration of fat bodies that doesn’t have this inherent bend to want to sell everyone something,” said Rashatwar, who underlined that this format is a refreshing departure from corporate-sponsored shopping events they’ve been invited to in the past.
Rashatwar, popularly known on social media as TheFatSexTherapist, is a clinician who specializes in politicized therapy — which they describe as therapy that consciously recognizes systems of oppression and their impact.
Rashatwar often serves people whose lived experiences are similar to their own — including the children of immigrants, sexual trauma survivors, and those who have encountered body image or diet traumas. As a fat, nonbinary person who has been stigmatized for their weight and appearance, they also lead workshops that address fatphobia.
“It is very difficult to do — to teach about one’s own oppression while living it every day,” they said. “But I deeply enjoy teaching about how to better see diet culture, how to better understand fatphobia, and the subtle ways we embody it and communicate our devotion to it.”
Fatphobia is sometimes framed as a fear or disgust of fat people — but Rashatwar said fatphobia is more complicated. “People will assume just based on what my body looks like what my relationship with morality and pleasure is — and that is inherently because of fatphobia,” they said.
Fatphobia is also “a fear of becoming fat and being hated by society because of what our bodies look like,” Rashatwar explained, noting that these reactions to fatness are rooted in systems of oppression — specifically white supremacy and patriarchy.
Throughout their childhood, Rashatwar’s parents placed them on nonconsensual diets, sometimes through fads, like Jenny Craig. Rashatwar now believes this was a misguided attempt to help them succeed in American society, encouraging them to accept and conform to the standards of white supremacy so they could fit in. But Rashatwar, whose family is South Asian and Hindu, felt isolated growing up in a community that upheld white ideals.
As an undergraduate at Temple University, Rashatwar double-majored in environmental science and geography/urban studies — but it was their concentration in women and gender studies that introduced them to different ways of thinking about these social norms.
“Black feminism is what radicalized me to do the work that I do, to really see my personal as political,” they said.
The Combahee River Collective and other subversive thinkers empowered Rashatwar to reconsider narratives they’d internalized about race, gender, queer identity and body image.
Working as a volunteer counselor with domestic violence survivors inspired them to develop their skills further, which brought them to Widener University where they earned a master of social work and master of education in human sexuality. Rashatwar, who graduated in 2016, was part of a campus-wide reckoning over whether political discourse should be welcome in classrooms and therapy spaces.
“What is depression — and what is fatigue from having to pretend like everything is okay?” Rashatwar asked, pointing out the importance of acknowledging the systemic problems people face so they won’t feel responsible for their suffering. Depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health concerns can stem from marginalization, Rashatwar underlined, explaining that therapists must confront the impacts of colonialism and white supremacy so they can avoid replicating these patterns and continuing harm.
Rashatwar, who now teaches at Thomas Jefferson University, said their current students are hungry for opportunities to unpack these concepts and often stay after class to continue learning. “That is evidence to me that this profession is on the brink of change,” they said, adding that these shifts in framework are part of a global revolution that seeks collective liberation.
But there’s still a lot of work to do. The needs and concerns of fat people aren’t always considered in movement spaces, and sometimes bias leads to otherization. Rashatwar criticized recent body positivity rhetoric which is distancing plus-size bodies that fit most norms from the largest people.
“It’s so important for folks with a fat liberationist perspective to center the fattest among us because those are the folks who are most marginalized by fatphobia in our society,” they said. “If we center the most marginalized, then all of us get free.”
Fat liberationists don’t approach the world through the same lens as dieters and “thin-worshiping people,” Rashatwar said, who unintentionally communicate their fatphobia and stigmatize weight without realizing it all the time. They explained that fat people are often asked to “perform tricks” or adhere to problematic standards in order to earn “crumbs” of acceptance.
Backlash for FatCon has exploded in right-wing media circles, which accuse Rashatwar of hating white people and condemn the convention for glorifying fatness — but Rashatwar said that’s what makes the event so necessary. As the keynote speaker, they hope to speak about the importance of maintaining fat community during the rise of global facism.
Their goal as an attendee is to relish in the power and joy of visibility. Public spaces aren’t built with fat people in mind, Rashatwar explained, and they can be shamed away from occupying that space — making it less accessible and affirming to be out and about. This gathering, they said, offers an opportunity for fat people to assert their place in the world and seek unique connections that can only occur among those who share a lived experience.
“When you see a group of fat people intentionally take up space in public, it is really against many odds,” they said.
In contrast, Rashatwar’s own home is intentionally designed to welcome fat guests, with sturdy chairs that can comfortably cradle pals of all sizes for hours of conversation. They look forward to the upcoming convention, hoping to make like-minded friends.
“I’ve found my political community,” they said. “But I really need more fat people in it.”
Philly FatCon will be held Oct. 27-29 at various locations. For more information and to register, visit eventcreate.com/e/phillyfatcon2023.